One of the biggest home games in UCF history is on the horizon. We thought it would be fun (and informative!) to touch base with our SB Nation sister site “Down the Drive” and trade some questions and answers in advance of our AAC East showdown.
So we sent Phil Neuffer five questions about UC and he sent five to us (plus a bonus question). You can follow Phil on Twitter @PhilNeuffer and Down the Drive @DownTheDrive. You can find our answers to Phil’s questions over at Down the Drive.
1. The last time we had one of these exchanges, you were optimistic that Bearcats Head Coach Luke Fickell was building something serious, not coasting like Tuberville. How far ahead of schedule are the Bearcats now, versus where you expected them to be before the season?
Is light years an option? While I expected genuine progress this season after a pretty dismal first year, Fickell has somehow crafted much more than that. Before the season, if you told me the Bearcats would make a bowl game, I would have said that was a ringing endorsement, but now they are in contention for an American Athletic Conference title. Fickell clearly has a vision and the hope is that won’t change even if the program has reached rarified air sooner than expected.
2. What’s the main reason behind UC’s success this season?
There are a few reasons. The primary one is what has happened on defense. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Fickell, a former defensive coordinator, has led a complete overhaul on that side of the ball. Defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman deserves a lot of credit as well. Players are being put in better positions to succeed and the scheme itself has been adjusted to increase pressure and make stopping the run a priority. Thanks to all the changes, the Bearcats are a top 20 team in defensive S&P+ and it shows.
The adjustment on offense is another major reason. Instead of just keeping things steady, Fickell rocked the boat slightly by bringing in redshirt freshman Desmond Ridder in as quarterback on the second series of the season. Ridder, with his mix of precision passing and mobility, has taken the chance and run with it. Having a quarterback that can make plays and win games is a real advantage this team was missing.
3. What UC players should UCF fans be focused on - Offense? Defense?
While Ridder has infused life into the offense, it is running back Michael Warren who is at the center of everything. The sophomore has taken to being the No. 1 back exceptionally well. He is the first UC running back since 2012 to rush for 1,000 yards in a season and his 17 rushing touchdowns are more than three teams in the conference.
The defense is filled with talent, but defensive tackle Cortez Broughton is the anchor. He has really shut down any chance teams have of running up the middle and made life miserable for opposing quarterbacks, tallying 5.0 sacks and 16.5 tackles for loss. Production like that is why UC is the No. 1 rush defense in the conference.
4. What do you view as the key position match-up on Saturday night?
I think the battle between UCF’s offensive line and UC’s defensive line is the matchup that will decide this game. Obviously UCF can run the ball and run it well, ranking second in the AAC in rushing yards per game (271.44). The Bearcats are built to stop the run and it all starts with the line. Broughton, Kimoni Fitz and Marquise Copeland are all capable of shedding blocks and closing running lanes quickly. How successful they are against the Knights is going to be a critical deciding factor.
5. Complete this thought: if the Bearcats win, it will be because ...
They stopped the run and started fast on offense. UC has had to come back from some slow starts a few times, including last week against USF. I don’t expect UCF to be so forgiving. That means Warren has to find gaps to exploit for big yardage and Ridder needs to keep the defense honest with his arm and legs from the very beginning.